A wedding in five acts

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Europe » Hungary » Northern Great Plain
August 15th 2009
Published: January 2nd 2010
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In the morning we awake to a nearly cloudless day and Gabe, Kristen and I drive to Jozsi’s house to practice with the horsebows. Just as we feel we are beginning to get a handle on shooting and aiming, Jozsi shows us just how much farther still we need to go by firing his arrow into the target from four times our distance. Regardless, we are finding that the horsebow requires less effort to shoot than English longbows, as they are both easier to pull back and to aim.

Noon approaches and the sun begins to bake our backs. We will be attending Anikó and Krisztián’s wedding this afternoon, and so, not wanting to become too sweaty before changing into our formal attire, we retreat to back to the house to prepare for the day. Klara advises us to bring a change of comfortable clothes for late in the night when the dancing really gets going. I casually ask her at around what time we will be back and she shrugs her shoulders, saying, “Maybe four in the morning.” I ask her if she is serious and she assures me that Hungarian weddings last well into the following morning. Having
Making the killMaking the killMaking the kill

Notice that I'm not irresponsible enough to pull back the string.
finally overcome jetlag, the prospect of another sleepless night to yet again throw my internal clock off balance has me a bit worried. Additionally, I have no idea what to expect from this event, only that Klara had advised me to wear a light blue shirt to not only match Gabe and Feri, but also because the white shirt I was going to bring is apparently too funereal for Hungarian weddings.


Jozsi arrives with his family and we take two cars to Anikó and Krisztián’s house in Homok, a small village which has been incorporated into the town of Tiszaföldvár, parking along their short residential street. Their property is filled with family and friends, and refreshments and hors d’oeuvres, consisting mainly of various meat appetizers, have been laid out beneath canopied tents in their back yard. The celebrated couple is already mingling with the crowd.

We find some seats in the back corner where I am introduced to a man in his sixties who I later find out is a wealthy surgeon, and the head doctor of a hospital in Nyíregyháza. He was a childhood friend of Gabe’s father and uncle, and he eagerly engages me in a conversation of broken English. Considering that his English is self-taught, his grasp is impressive, though his choice of colorful subject matter makes the going rough. “I have a book of English insults,” he tells me, “I want to try some out on you, okay?” I agree. “A man walks into a shoemaker’s shop, and the shoemaker asks what he wants. The man says, I was able to walk in here, I want to be able to walk out again.” I assume that something has been lost in the translation, because I fail to find the element that is making the surgeon chuckle. I must also assume that his book is quite antiquated, as cobbler jokes have not been popular for nearly a century, at least not in the U.S. Nevertheless, I smile and nod politely.

Anikó has disappeared to change into her dress when shortly thereafter the sound of a brass band drifts from the road. The musicians march into the yard and set up beside us, awaiting the bride to make her entrance. I am told that this is all part of a traditional wedding. In the meantime the surgeon has continued to speak with me and gets my full attention when, over the music, he asks me, “What is the word in English? Wanking?” Not expecting this topic, I say, “The British call it that, we usually say ‘jerking off’.” He doesn’t seem to have heard the last part for he next asks, “Is that what you call a ‘blowjob’?” I give an awkward, involuntary laugh and say, “No, no, that’s something very different.”

At that moment a mustached man begins making important announcements, thankfully cutting short my conversation with the surgeon. I am told that the man speaking is the wedding host whose job it will be to ensure that the day runs smoothly and that everyone has a good time. He will also be performing the traditional wedding at the house, the first step of what will be a very long wedding celebration. The brass band begins to play as Anikó and Krisztián exit the house and proceed to the back yard. The host stands between them and speaks in rhymes, and the couple take turns kissing their family members goodbye, which I take to symbolize leaving the nest and going out on one’s own.


Normally in small villages the marching band would lead the wedding party to the town hall where the couple will sign their marriage certificate, however, because the township of Tiszaföldvár has grown so large, everyone begins piling into their cars to meet there instead. When we arrive everyone begins to pile into the building, which proves to be incredibly hot and stuffy. We sit closely packed, elbow to elbow, hoping for a breeze or draft that does not come, stewing in our own sweat as the second act of the wedding takes place. More accurately, this is another wedding ceremony, this time legal in nature. We see little from the last row of the room apart from the backs of peoples’ heads. Even if I could understand the language I cannot hear what is being said in the ceremony at the front of the room. Finally I see Anikó and Krisztián sign some papers and the room erupts in applause. The newlyweds exit down the aisle and we eagerly follow and take in the fresh air outside. They climb into the back of a car that has a “Just Married” flag fluttering behind. We return to our vehicle and head to what will essentially be the third wedding.

We follow the motorcade as it proceeds down a main artery of Tiszaföldvár, an expansive but relatively depressed town. As I have mentioned previously, the town’s name derives from the earthwork fortification that once existed here, built by the Turks. The town, like most of the Northern Great Plain, is absolutely flat, and it is difficult to imagine the great manmade swells that once defined the area. Most of the twentieth century saw hardship for the town, including large number of losses suffered during World War I. It was not until 1993 that it was granted the status of a town. Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair and some are now collapsed to little more than stone and terracotta piles. We see many townsfolk out as we drive, most of them elderly and walking or riding bicycles. Families come out and lean upon their property gates and wave to us as we pass. Repeated, festive honking along the length of the procession continually announces our arrival.


We park along the street and stream into the small St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic church, built in 1894, taking a pew

Jozsi's son
halfway down. Upon the back wall hangs a facsimile of the shroud of Turin. Anikó is escorted inside by her father, who leads her to the priest and Krisztián who are waiting at the front. What follows is, to my relief, not mass, but essentially the priest talking aloud for a half-hour while the couple sits before him on padded stools. I tend to find Catholic services in English dull, but not being able to understand the language leaves me desperate for distraction. Being a compulsive reader, it does not take me long to grab a psalm book and begin to try to translate the German text.

Occasionally Feri turns around in the pew before me and clues me in on the priest’s mini-sermon, which consists mainly of talk of the recession and how divorce rates are rising because people do not go to church enough (he cannot resist rolling his eyes when he tells me this one). I have been getting the sense that most Hungarians, though perhaps religious, are not avid church-goers. Case in point: Klara spends most of the speech ignoring the priest and talking with her friend, and seems either unaware or unconcerned as to

Jozsi's daughter
the proper protocol in a Catholic church. (Kristen and I, being apostate Catholics, seem a bit more prepared for the occasion). At least, though, the interior is comfortable and cool.

There is a receiving line as we exit, after which I step aside and await our next move. I watch as the priest begins to make an announcement on the front lawn and realize quickly that he is trying to sell postcards of the church. Considering the harsh economic times, I try not to judge him too harshly. Still, the surgeon once again finds me and, after taking a drag of his cigarette, leans into my ear and says of the priest: “He talks a lot of shit.” I tell him it is the same in every country and every language and I am relieved when he laughs.

He goes on to tell me that the dinner reception to follow will be held in the dining hall of a school which seems to have an interesting history. He says that it had originally been the home of a count-of-some-sort who died with his newlywed bride on the Titanic. At this I remark that I hope Anikó and Krisztián will be avoiding cruises for their honeymoon, which again gets another laugh. The building was then converted into a monastery until the Soviet takeover, after which it became a school for handicapped children. (While later looking for information to corroborate this story, Gabe reads in a book of the county’s history that Count Beniczky István and his wife actually died in a shipwreck off the coast of Singapore, and the Titanic story is a misremembered but often told local legend. After his death their mansion was converted into a boys’ orphanage/technical school, which was in keeping with the count’s wishes. The monastery element to the story may derive from there being a nunnery in town, or perhaps it is simply the result of a misinterpretation on my part.)


Given its historic background, the school’s property is more nondescript than I have imagined. It is made of different buildings, none of which I can easily identify as being the former home of a count. Nevertheless, the grounds are attractive and the buildings create a secluded, cloister-like roundabout that appeals to my sense of privacy. We enter the dining hall to find that the brass band has now become a rock ensemble. We quickly find our names at one of the four long tables that run the length of the room and grab a seat, digging in to the drinks (sodas, juices, wines) and pastries that already await us. So begins a nearly nonstop food blitz that will continue for many hours. Hungarian cuisine has so far matched my taste buds; however, as I bite into a pastry I find that once again the baker seems to have mistaken salt for sugar. Kristen, from whom I must regularly segregate my french fries to save them from being overly frosted in iodized grains, gladly finishes my morsel. Our party and the surgeon’s family, including his wife and pretty daughter, occupy most of the table.

The band plays traditional Hungarian tunes at first, but after the first hour of not knowing any of the music I realize that I am singing Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” under my breath. The appearance of an American song - or any which I can identify - creates an unexpected heightening of my already high spirits. As the afternoon progresses we hear other American songs peppered in the mix, including Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road Jack” and a surprisingly rocking version of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” that gets even this disco-hater’s foot tapping. However, in each of these situations we are the only group who knows any of the lyrics or appears to even recognize any of these songs. This is made painfully apparent when upon returning from the toilette I find the band playing The Champs’s “Tequila,” and I am unable to resist breaking into a quick rendition of Pee-Wee Herman’s barroom dance. Gabe and Kristen recognize it, but the song and dance is lost upon the rest of the room. This is truly a first for me: a wedding full of progressively drunk people who do not know to yell “tequila!”

Our dinner comes in two waves with chicken soup as the first course accompanied by plates of pickled cucumbers and sweet peppers. The soup is served in a fashion I am not used to: the broth comes in a large communal bowl floating with various root vegetables, while the chicken comes on a separate plate. Each person assembles their own mixture, adding the broth and choice meats as they like. The second course is a delicious beef gulyás which has a broth that is thicker than what I had experienced in Bogács. Once again we create our own dish by adding other ingredients which are laid out, including boiled potatoes and tasty dumplings seasoned with sunflower seeds.

After dinner we are treated to a one-woman show. A singer has been hired to entertain us with Hungarian folk songs as well as modern Hungarian pop hits. Obviously, I don’t understand a word but I still enjoy the spectacle. She is dressed in a stylized version of a traditional dress, much like the American equivalent of a rhinestone cowboy.

Before dusk Kristen, Gabe and I decide to take an extended breath of fresh air and explore the school’s grounds, particularly the playground. Beside a newer set of jungle-gyms and slides stand the remnants of an older playground, made from tires, wood, and other materials which tend to be unforgiving to a child’s flesh. It is the kind of playground in which Gabe remembers playing from growing up just a few towns to the north. Among the drab looking equipment is a concrete Ping-Pong table that has clearly become too weatherworn and pockmarked to fulfill its intended function. It is a
The traditional weddingThe traditional weddingThe traditional wedding

The host is standing behind them.
moment for me to remember just how much has changed in this country since this equipment was first erected.

As the night progresses Kristen and I begin to realize that we are bit of a novelty at this celebration, as we have many curious guests asking us how we are enjoying the country and ensuring that we are having a good time. It is not a bad feeling, but certainly a new one. One woman, who by the location of her car’s steering wheel led us to assume that she lives at least part time in England, and was one of the only present to speak English, was kind enough to seek us out and personally greet us upon hearing of our attendance.


It is 11 p.m. At a typical American wedding the party would be slowly winding down, with families heading home to rest for the next day’s work or with people too inebriated to stand on a dance floor. However, this party is just beginning. Only now are Anikó and Krisztián cutting the cake and walking the room, individually serving each piece to their guests. When Kristen and I were wed almost two years ago we thought that we had done a lot of work and preparation to make it a success, but these newlyweds have put our efforts to shame and show no signs of fatigue. After the cake is served they retreat for some alone time and to change into more comfortable clothes.

The dance floor fills and the drinks begin to flow aplenty. By midnight the wine is going to my head. When the couple returns Krisztián goes to each guest in the room and shares a shot of Unicum. How he is still walking straight by the end is a miracle.

America, unfortunately, does not have a living folk-dancing tradition. My experience of American weddings consists of white people awkwardly doing the Electric Slide or, fates forbid, the Chicken Dance (both, incidentally, were banned at our wedding). Hungarians, however, can dance, and they can do so for hours at a time. I am not a dancer, but this being a rare occasion far from home means I am far more willing to make a fool of myself. Liquid courage helps, too. Krisztián soon brings Kristen onto the dance floor as I watch from the perimeter and clap to keep time. In a frenzied moment Krisztián then pulls me onto the floor. We lock arms and spin, our free hands held in the air, and then turn and lock our other arms and spin the opposite way. I feel like a fat, sweaty whirling dervish, but this is dancing simple enough to manage. Kristen and I stay on the dance floor for a while, but each song seems to go on for ten minutes and we end up going back to our table in an exhausted state.

More dances follow. A circle is formed and a stick is passed, and the possessor enters the circle and improvises a dance before handing it to the next person. In another dance the host rhythmically bangs a wooden spoon against a large metal bowl while people place lottery tickets into it as a sort of admission ticket to dance with the bride and groom.

At 1:30 a.m. sausages are served. One is spicy and red, called kolbász, with the other is a black sausage made from pork and rice, called hurka. I am drunk and these tubed meats taste like heaven. It is over another hour before we leave to head back to Kengyel, and I can barely remove my suit before I drop into the bed and black out.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo

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